It may seem like another world now but in 2013, the Bharatiya Janata Party was reluctant to make its election campaign about Hindutva. Of course, there were many dog whistles and attempts to polarise, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. But the party’s central campaign tagline was “sabka saath, sabka vikas” or development for all. Five years later, with its promises of development having mostly gone nowhere, the party – either out of desire or necessity – appears to have dispensed with vikas altogether.
Promises of creating jobs have given way to xenophobic rhetoric about throwing out “illegal immigrants”. Talk of Make in India, a programme to overhaul India’s manufacturing base, has been replaced by rhetoric about building an intensely polarising Ram temple in Ayodhya. Where once they were complaining about the dynastic tendencies of the Congress, BJP leaders have now steered the discussion towards the “gotra” or clan of that party’s president, and directly pitching Bajrang Bali against Ali, about as blatant of a communal call as you can get. Almost everyone is convinced that the main issue of the election will be Ram.
Meanwhile, thousands of farmers walked into Delhi on Thursday to convey the extent of agricultural distress to India’s political leadership, and demand that policies be implemented to protect their lives and livelihood. Modi’s promise from 2014 to double farmer incomes by 2022 seems like a cruel joke now. Instead, the protesting farmers are demanding basic policy fixes that will at least ensure stability at the prices they currently earn.
Yet, by and large, over the last few days, the political discussion has focused on Ram, gotra, temples, and whether going to Pakistan immediately makes Indians anti-national. It is clear that the BJP would like to focus the conversation on nationalism and religion. The party has been putting this question front and centre since the Jawaharlal Nehru University fracas of 2015. The success of this approach, attempting to move the middle ground so far to the right that the discussion is focused on questions of religion or nationalism, seems to have succeeded at least to some extent in Madhya Pradesh, where elections are underway. But that state also presents a test case about whether issues like rural distress will prevail over identity politics, as analyses by Sajjan Kumar and Roshan Kishore suggest.
Still, no matter which way the results go, the BJP is unlikely to pull back from its blatantly religious pitch for 2019, since it has little else to offer the public. The question then, is whether the Opposition will fall for this approach and how far the media will enable it. Signs from even the current state elections do not suggest that either will stand in the way of the BJP’s attempts to polarise the electorate. Efforts like the farmers’ march seek to put the spotlight squarely on the policies of the government, and what it has not been able to achieve over the last four years. Will their voices – and the concerns of others whom the government has failed, from the business community to the unemployed – be heard above the temple and gotra din?
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